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Society is awash in ignorance, misinformation

Fred Chartrand / The Canadian Press</p><p>Governor General Julie Payette's remarks about astrology, climate-change denial and homeopathic medicine rubbed some Canadians the wrong way.</p>

Fred Chartrand / The Canadian Press

Governor General Julie Payette's remarks about astrology, climate-change denial and homeopathic medicine rubbed some Canadians the wrong way.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/3/2018 (816 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

This article is GMO-free and gluten-friendly. Read it and your health will improve.

The internet was supposed to have ushered in an era of costless and abundant information. It was supposed to enlighten us. Yet the opposite seems to have occurred. False facts and metaphysical superstition sway many. Recent surveys show that 40 per cent of Americans do not know that the Earth revolves around the sun and almost half do not accept that humans have inhabited the Earth for much longer than 10,000 years.

We laugh at ancient beliefs that direct us to drill holes in our heads to relieve migraines — something to do with letting out evil spirits. Yet we replace these myths with equally weird notions such as the suggestion gluten is poisonous and needs to be eliminated from human diets.

It is true a small fraction of humans have a gluten intolerance and can experience severe stomach upset after eating even a small cracker. There may even be a spectrum of gluten intolerance, where some experience varying degrees of symptoms, but this probably does not occur at the scale suggested by the explosion of gluten-free options in stores or restaurants.

Industry — and that includes everyone from giant food corporations to small-scale restaurants and food producers — is cashing in, promoting the idea we all would be better off by eliminating gluten from our diets.

A gluten-free bagel, aside from being a cultural affront, just tastes bad. It has the same number of calories as a regular bagel, but much less protein and adds sugar to compensate for its vile taste. That limits the nutrition and caloric reduction of the gluten-free bagel and undermines the claim that a gluten-free diet is a path to weight loss and health.

Now, I am not a nutrition expert. The point of this trite example is that researching gluten-free bagels took me 30 minutes. I am pretty good at internet searching, but Dr. Google is not my friend. Rather, industry and interest groups, all selling something, now dominate search engines. The first dozen entries in any search are usually ads. Some overtly sell products, while others mask the "sell" in the context of an "informational" or "educational" message.

An important reason why we are becoming collectively more ignorant is that finding credible information is so time-consuming. It is easier to fall back on habit and custom. Every time we encounter the term "gluten friendly," we become more inclined to think there must some truth to the claims of better health and go with the flow.

Another reason for our collective dumbing-down is the active misrepresentation of selected "facts." This has been a tough flu season and the vaccine cocktail prepared for this year appears to have had a 10 per cent effectiveness against the H3N2 strain. Anti-vaxxers use this fact, along with the inevitable truth that many who received the vaccine succumbed to flu. This will always be true for any vaccination that has less than 100 per cent efficacy — namely, all of them. But vaccination reduces the chance of contracting the flu; understanding the idea of risk reduction is an important element of science literacy.

The media also plays a role in the galloping science ignorance of the population. Controversy sells and in the interest of fairness, both sides of a question must appear evenly. Thus, so-called balanced discussions of climate change usually give equal space to advocates on both sides. It is much like debating whether the Earth is round by giving equal time to an astronaut who has circumvented the planet and a representative of the Flat Earth Society. The truth does not lie in the middle. A clear majority of scientists accepts the idea that global warming is due to human activity, which should focus the debate on what to do about this problem and not whether it exists.

At the core of the current state of science ignorance is a profound anti-science movement. Our governor general received criticism for attacking those who assert that "every single one of the people here’s personalities can be determined by looking at planets coming in front of invented constellations." Some saw this comment about astrology as an attack on religion. However, any religion that cannot incorporate science into its belief system is bunk. All politicians should emulate Julie Payette’s plain speech defending science.

Why does science matter to the economy? Aside from the obvious fact that science is the source of new technology and that it costs a lot to demolish ignorance, sound public policy requires a scientifically literate population. How do we combine energy development and environmental stewardship? Should we compel parents to vaccinate their children? Should we tax the consumption of wild fish and promote farmed fish?

Responding to these questions requires a respect for science. Unless we invest much more in science education and communication, I fear we simply will not have the intellectual horsepower to manage the complexity of the coming decades.

Gregory Mason is an associate professor in the department of economics of the University of Manitoba.


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